Friday, January 7, 2011

Not all infrastructure is worth replacing

For weeks now, maybe months, I've been struggling to articulate something, and going through a bunch of false starts, and then moving on, only to have it come back to me in response to another article. I've been reading article after blog post after tweet after comment about the shitty state of America's infrastructure, how we can't build anything anymore, how shitty it was for Chris Christie to cancel the ARC tunnel because it meant that New Jersey wasn't building big things. I've been reading things that assume I'm a "transportation advocate," who really wants to see the transportation bill reauthorized so that we can get an "infrastructure bank" to help with mobility for the 21st century or something.

Well, maybe you're a transportation advocate who wants an infrastructure bank, but I'm not. Now, I'm a mechanically inclined geek who likes to look at buildings and bridges and train lines, but I don't think that the fate of the world depends on our ability to build or maintain large contraptions, and I refuse to mislead my fellow human beings just so I can get my jollies taking a ride on a high-speed train.

There are lots of situations where it's a good idea to build something or replace something, but there are others where it doesn't make any sense. Roads and sewers and power lines are tools. They have no inherent value, it all comes from their ability to help us reach a goal. If you sell a city an expensive light rail system that doesn't make a significant impact on poor people's access to jobs and shopping, or air quality, or global warming, you're just like the schmuck on television pitching an expensive table saw to someone who just needs a hand saw.

I'm going to pick on one of my commenters here, in this case Adirondacker 12800. As with most of the regular commenters, I appreciate Adirondacker's comments because they are often informative and help me to focus my own thoughts. I'm singling out Adirondacker not because the comments are stupid, but the opposite, in fact: because they articulate something that I've been trying to grapple with in my own mind.

So Adirondacker is very concerned that the Tappan Zee Bridge will collapse into the water, and I'm perfectly willing to believe that if we continue driving thousands of cars across it every day without doing some major maintenance that's just what will happen. I'm just not convinced that that's such a problem.

Yes, I don't want to see anyone injured or killed like on the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, but the Tappan Zee Bridge could fail like the Champlain Bridge did in 2009, when the State DOT realized it was unsafe and closed it before anyone could get hurt. I don't see the big deal.

Yes, I know that it's a major link on the East Coast blah blah blah, but we have the George Washington Bridge and the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge and a bunch of other bridges and tunnels that cross it. The Poughkeepsie Bridge was a major link, but it was allowed to sit completely unused for 35 years, and now it's used only by pedestrians and cyclists, most of them recreational.

If you're really into infrastructure, you can go a few miles west of Poughkeepsie to High Falls, New York, and see the majestic ruins of the Delaware and Hudson Canal. (It's served only by the weekday N Route of UCAT, but you can take a taxi from Rosendale.) That used to be a major link too, bringing barges of coal through miles of farmland. Now it's a ditch in the woods filled with a foot or so of stagnant water, and some abandoned aqueduct pilings in the Rondout Creek. Gaze on those works and despair.

I haven't read about people's reactions when the D&H Canal was being abandoned, but I don't think there was that much despair because they were excited about the New York, Ontario and Western Railway coming to town. When the O&W was being abandoned, people were excited about the Thruway and Route 209. The Thruway's time will come soon; why prolong it? Why throw good money after bad?

So yes, I am an advocate of access for all, clean air and water, conserving our resources, keeping people alive and healthy, and strong societies. You may or may not have similar goals. Transportation infrastructure can be an excellent tool to accomplish these goals, and it can also help with things like fiscal stimulus. But it is not an end in itself. We should not replace infrastructure just because it's falling down. We should not build infrastructure for its own sake, or even just for the sake of moving people around.

Let's keep perspective, and keep our end goals in mind. You know my goals; if you want me to support replacing a bridge, you need to connect it to them.


Unknown said...

I hear that, but doesn't that ignore the development that was prompted by and reliant upon the Tappan Zee Bridge itself? Stakeholders in the land-use process see the building of a bridge (or a subway) as permanent infrastructure that ensures access from various points.

One of the big reasons I support rail transit over bus is the permanence--the fact that because so much more is invested there, TOD developers can be confident this area will have transportation access for decades to come. Once that trust is violated by not replacing that infrastructure once it deteriorates, I'm not so sure what happens.

Alon Levy said...

+1 to what you said, Cap'n. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous said...

What portion of the traffic over the bridge is "Thru" traffic? I used to take the bridge from Long Island up to Albany, but I could just as easily have gone over the GWB or taken the much more scenic and only 20-minutes longer route up the east side of the river and crossed on I90.

The only people with no recourse, save perhaps a much cheaper ferry service, would be people who use the bridge to go from one side of the river to the other near to each side of the bridge. There may not be enough of them to justify the cost.

As for the ratio between the number of people who "need" the bridge and the cost of the bridge, theres some fudging and understanding to be done here imo. Otherwise, with the costs of building things nowadays in New York, no infrastructure will ever be built outside of NYC (maybe even Manhattan itself) again.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks, Alon!

Hal, the development that was prompted by the bridge is unsustainable sprawl, and the sooner we're rid of it the better. Infrastructure is constantly changing, and I really don't think TOD developers care about what's going to happen decades in the future.

Bbnet, origin-destination study focused on eastbound morning rush hour private auto traffic. Of that, the majority of trips were coming from Orange or Rockland, and the majority of trips were terminating in Westchester. So they could be considered to "need" the bridge.